So, failure. Ugh, right?
Well, I was feeling like a failure today, like I’d let the team down because an idea of mine went sour. It sucks when that happens, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I found myself retracing my steps, looking at how I got from A to B to C, to what I should have thought of to avoid where things ended up. It comes down to a lack of knowledge, and I’ve learned from it. This led me to think a bit more about failure, and our characters.
Failure is something no one looks forward to or wants to experience. It doesn’t feel good to fight for something and fail. A knot of emotion (frustration, disappointment, anguish, anger) can quickly escalate to darker feelings (shame, self-loathing, humiliation, bitterness, disillusionment, and even jealousy and vengefulness). Often these darker emotions are directly tied to an Emotional Wound.
However, failure can also lead to positive traits like determination, persistence, resourcefulness and a higher level of discipline. It might take a while to reframe failure in the character’s mind, but during character arc, he may come to see past failure as an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. And once the character comes to this type of thinking, it leads to change, to evolution. To inner growth, and finally that thing everyone seeks: success.
How each of us deals with upsets, disappointments and failure can say a lot about who we are deep down, and it is the same with our characters. Not only that, but their go-to coping strategies can also help us pinpoint where they are on that path of change (character arc) and open a window into where their weaknesses lie, and what attitudes need to shift to get them on the road to achievement.
Coping (or Not) With Failure
Here are some of the ways I think people (and therefore our characters) tend to react when it comes to failure. Have a read and see which rings true for your hero or heroine.
For some, failure triggers the blame game. Rather than look within to what they might have done differently or take responsibility for their actions and performance, the blamer makes it about other people: What they did to cause this result. How they let one down. How it was rigged from the start. How one was held back, not helped, how others didn’t play fair.
The lesson that must be learned: be accountable, and be responsible. Whatever comes, whatever the result is, face it and take ownership for your own actions and choices.
Quitters become so bruised and angry at coming up short they take themselves out of the game. Quitters may put in a lot of effort, but at the end of the day, they have a breaking point. Many have an expectation that hard work or wanting something badly enough should lead to reward.
The lesson that must be learned: lose the entitlement and become a force of will. Hard work and dedication by nature is about going the distance, about pushing through pain and giving as much as is required. It doesn’t have a finish line to aim for; you only find it when you cross it.
Minimizers care about something right up until it slips through their fingers. Then they proclaim that the goal or prize is not as big a deal as people think. They protect their own feelings over failing by trying to minimize the achievement (also minimizing the victor in the process).
The lesson that must be learned: stop lying about what matters. Instead of pretending you don’t care, care deeply. The tide of negative feelings that come from failure shouldn’t stop you. If it’s important, proclaim it. Chase it. Try again and again because it’s worth doing.
Refusers deal with failure by denying a failure occurred at all. In their minds they won, but simply were denied the prize. Convinced that they did everything right, they believe they were indeed the “true” victor. They cannot take criticism and convince themselves that any differing opinions are invalid.
The lesson that must be learned: take self-importance down a peg. No one knows it all, and no one is so perfect there’s zero room for improvement. Look behind the mask, and ask the toughest question of all: Why is the need to always be right or to win so important? What fear does it hide?
Recommitters represent the point of the knife. In that low moment, they take failing hard. They question their path. They may toy with quitting. But something sticks their feet to the road. The goal, the closeness of it, the realization of the hard work it took to get this far…something pulls them back from the brink. They marry the goal, and go all-in.
The lesson that must be learned: don’t give up. The hard part is done and now it’s about that last 10%. Push, strive, and believe. Keep learning and growing and it will happen.
Adapters see failure as part of the process, so when they fail, they adapt. It isn’t the end of the world; there are other thing to want and go after. They move on.
The lesson that must be learned: find your passion and believe in yourself. Adapters may appear well-adjusted because they move on quickly, but this can also be a manifestation of a fear of risk. They may think it’s better to settle for what is safe than risk being denied what they really want. Settling usually leads to regret, so if you want something deeply, don’t give up on it.
Assess and Adjust
The double A’s move past failure in the healthiest way possible: they assess their performance, objectively review what they could have done better, and then they adjust, seeking out the help they need to improve and get to the next step.
The lesson that must be learned: there’s no lesson here…they’ve already learned it: you should never be afraid of growing and evolving, and asking for assistance if you need it.
Personalizers take the failure to heart, and like the crumbly edge of a sinkhole, that darkness grows. Failing to achieve the goal becomes a spiral of falsehoods where a character convinces themselves that everything they touch is bad, that their life is one big failure.
The lesson that must be learned: your failure doesn’t define you, but your reaction to it might. Get some distance and perspective. Every day is new. Everyone fails and feels inadequate at times, but it is each person’s choice to make a change. Big or small, change happens because we will it, and we work toward it.
Wallowers crumple. They become destroyed by failure, and are unable to move on from it or imagine feeling any different. They want others to cater to them, feel sorry for them, and jump through hoops to help pull them out of their funk.
The lesson that must be learned: wallowing isn’t attractive, and makes you weak. People may cater to you when you wallow, and this helps make you feel special, but this is just a patch on a leaky boat. You’ll never be happy if you let failure own you. Realize failure is really an opportunity to learn and grow. Embrace it, and resolve to do better next time.
Failure is such an interesting topic, because no one likes failing and yet it is one of the building blocks that pushes a character find the resiliency to to keep trying, to fight…and that makes for compelling reading.
Which of these coping methods do your characters use? Or, do they handle failure in a different way? Let me know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.